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The Tragic Case of Trayvon Martin

18 Mar 2012

written by Carolyn

Trayvon-Martin-2

I avoided news coverage of the Trayvon Martin case for the first few days it was in the news. The story of Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch leader who found Martin “suspicious” – hit too close to home.

Trayvon’s family has released a ton of photos of him. I’m glad they did, but the pictures are hard to view.  

Martin’s sweet, smiling, trusting face, made me think of my own little boy. My son, who is ten and growing, demands the independence to go to the store alone and buy himself a treat, as much to enjoy the fruits of his labor as to enjoy the freedom of crossing the street without his mother holding his hand. Last year, I wrote about how afraid I was to let him go to the store by himself. I eventually relented, but I don’t truly rest easy until he’s back home safe and sound.

As more information comes in to round out the picture of the two men whose lives fatefully collided that awful night, the harder it is for me to think about Trayvon Martin without thinking of my son and other young men in my family – young men who, like Martin, stayed out of trouble, played team sports – and who would gladly, as Martin did, leave their house at night to go to the store to get their litle brother, or younger cousin, some Skittles.

Being the mother of a young black boy often feels hopeless. You do all you can. You work on instilling the right values, a strong work ethic, a sense of pride. You lecture them so they know right from wrong. You make sure you know their friends, and you do your best to keep them away from the “bad kids” – and no matter where you live, every community has them. Especially as our boys approach the teenage years, we mothers of young black boys celebrate every birthday as another year our child beat the odds that seem stacked against him, no matter where he lives – the most dangerous ghetto, or the safest gated community.

You know there is always someone, some element, for whom your child’s very existence will be considered dangerous, suspicious, threatening. And you know if the altercation ever happens between your child and a person imbued with some authority and a gun, there is a very good chance your boy may not come out of it alive, for no reason other than that the color of his skin made someone think he was dangerous. You don’t want to think that someone could look at your sweet, harmless child and think themselves entitled to use deadly force to stop him from living and breathing and walking while black. But you are reminded of mothers, from Emmett Till’s mom, Mamie Till Mobley, to Trayvon Martin’s mom, Sybrina Fulton, and you can only think – “well, if the grace of God didn’t save their sons, why would His Grace save mine?”

The body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman, shown in an open casket funeral at his mother’s behest.

I look at Trayvon’s sweet face and wonder how anyone could look at him and think he was “up to no good, or on drugs or something,” as Zimmerman claimed in his call to 911. No drugs or alcohol were, of course, found on Martin. He wasn’t on drugs, and he wasn’t “up to no good.” He was just walking home. Yet it was easy for Zimmerman to stereotype him, because that’s the stereotype that unfortunately gets played out in the media, reinforced by popular culture.

Good black kids – kids like Trayvon, my son and my nephews – are considered so rare, they’re identifiable only if they exhibit extreme nerdiness, such as wearing taped Coke-bottle classes and high-waisted pants above their ankles, a la the character Urkel from the show “Family Matters.” Unfortunately, the good kids and the bad kids don’t dress all that differently. All kids, regardless of race, class, and socioeconomic status, wear hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans and work boots. So you can’t look at a kid and decide he’s dangerous based on how he’s dressed. You have to pay attention to how he’s acting, who he’s with, what they’re doing. It’s easier to stereotype, but we put all our kids at risk when we allow race, or dress, or some other physical characteristic, to serve as a proxy for criminal or suspicious behavior.

But the Trayvon Martin case is not simply a matter of black and white. This case isn’t a black issue or a civil rights issue, but a human rights issue. Trayvon Martin’s race made him suspicious, but what if someone decided that people with tattoos were suspicious? People with piercings? Shaved heads? Yarmulkes? Burqas? Coach bags? We can’t afford to let one man’s or one woman’s prejudice put our children’s lives at risk.

We also don’t want groups like Neighborhood Watch patrols becoming agents of vigilante justice. Neighborhood Watch patrols are a good thing, but the role of Neighborhood Watch is to do just that – watch, and call the police. Judging from the reports, George Zimmerman should have been relieved of his position as Neighborhood Watch captain some time ago. There have been several cases where unarmed black men were shot by the police, but if the immunity afforded police officers is extended to regular citizens, vigilantes would have a license to kill neighbors they dislike and deem “dangerous.” The rule of law and due process would become a joke. 

When little Leiby Kletzky was murdered and dismembered in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, I feared for my own child’s life. When a child is at risk simply for walking home alone from school, or for going to the store to buy candy, all of our children are at risk. I hope justice is served in the Trayvon Martin case. I know nothing can ease the pain of the Martin family, but I hope focusing attention on this tragedy will prevent other families from knowing that pain.


36 Comments on The Tragic Case of Trayvon Martin

  1. James Crotty

    Good piece, Carolyn. I don’t know the details of this case. Moreover, I believe in the presumption of innocence for even the most seemingly guilty or repulsive persons. But your point is well-made. The last thing we need is a bunch of Charles Bronson wannabes running around inflicting vigilante justice. I completely agree with your point about style of dress. The debate kids I coached at the Eagle Academy in the South Bronx often wore hoodies. They didn’t look like Urkels by any stretch. Correlation is not causality. Because certain teenage looks correlate with the looks of certain gang members does NOT mean that a specific kid dressed in a hoodie or other pseudo gangwear is guilty of a crime. Duh. Thank you.

  2. Carol

    Wonderful write up Carolyn. I still haven’t found the words to express my thoughts clearly but you’ve summarized them, my fears so clearly here. It hit me that when my 14 year old son walks out the door, hoodie up, headphones on, pants slightly baggy, skin permanently brown, I am afraid for him and why. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Mom101

    Thank you so much for this Carolyn. And for alerting me to this in the first place. It’s so complex and so horrible. I cannot know what it feels like to be the mother of a black son. I can only hope that all mothers feel for one another–our losses, our fears, our struggles–enough to make sure things like this never happen again.

  4. Mark Robinson

    I am strongly opposed to Neighborhood Watch organizations. I think they are almost always a liability, not an asset. The people who want to form/join them are typically:
    1. People who believe the police aren’t good enough
    2. People who perceive a threat where most others don’t
    3. People who feel they personally need to “take action”
    4. People who perceive their neighborhood as a sanctuary that is threatened by barbarians at the gate (this was a “gated community” in the Trayvon Martin case)
    5. People who believe they possess the skills (and the authority) to distinguish “good” people from “bad” people

    The only neighborhood watch that’s worth a damn is a community where neighbors know each other and care about each other and look after each other. I think that one of the (many) wrongful death suits in this case should be against the community itself for the formation of the neighborhood watch group.

    “Love Thy Neighbor” should never mean “Let’s take turns standing guard.” We need to stop living in fear. It’s killing us and it’s killing our children.

  5. Melissa

    Such a great post. I’ve had female two bosses in a row who have comfortably and casually expressed their fear and suspicions of, the first, boys in baggy pants and, the second, boys who aren’t white.
    Our family also has a loved one with mental health issues, and thus this fear is compounded when he is out of the house.

  6. Anne F.

    A lovely piece about a murder that is almost too horrifying to think about. Thanks for thinking about it and helping me to think about it too.

  7. Homa

    I am a currently inactive attorney and really appreciated this piece – it is a human rights issue, and so very heartbreaking. Your point about stereotypes and appearances is very crucial. I can’t begin to imagine what Trayvon’s family is going through.

  8. RR

    We don’t yet know exactly what happened, so at this point Zimmerman deserves the benefit of the doubt. We do know that the dispatcher instructed Zimmerman to stay in his car after he called the police to report a suspicious person. We do know he got out of the car and began to follow Trayvon on foot despite the dispatcher’s instructions and contra Neighborhood Watch guidelines

    I don’t know whether Zimmerman is going to be prosecuted for his actions. I do know that he is going to have a big fat lawsuit on his hands regardless.

    This is a nightmare.

  9. Carolyn

    ZIMMERMAN deserves the benefit of the doubt? Are you serious? Who is going to tell us “exactly what happened”? The dead teenager? What we know is that an innocent kid was walking home from the store and got shot by a wannabe cop. We know enough to know Zimmerman’s self-defense story has enough holes that he’s not entitled to immunity from prosecution. It is a nightmare, but this man is not law enforcement and doesn’t get to be treated like a cop would in this situation.

  10. Kristin

    Thank you for your work in disseminating the news and information over Twitter and here. The successful lobbying to release the 911 calls has at least ended the frustrating speculation about Zimmerman’s motivations.

    It is absolutely a human rights issue, a parenting issue, a societal issue, a legal issue. Thank you.

  11. Lewis Barlow

    That’s the scary thing to me– people being judged on how they appear. But this time it isn’t about a job or threat of being arrested, it’s a private person with a gun.

  12. ceeshan

    Thanks for this great article, Carolyn. I’ve been incensed ever since I’ve learned of this murder. I will never get over the fact that Zimmeran thought this poor innocent teen minding his business was a threat. It’s sad that every time our sons, fathers, brothers, or cousins venture outside we have to be in constant fear that something like this may happen. smh!!! Justice for Trayvon.

  13. RR

    Carolyn,

    As James pointed out, Zimmerman is innocent until proven guilty. He hasn’t even been charged. Being that he is the only witness to the crime, the investigation will be problematic. The truth is that only Zimmerman, Martin and the Lord really knows what happened.

    It is easy to jump to conclusions in this case. Being the parent of two black sons biases me. I am inclined to believe that a grave injustice has been perpetrated against the Martin family, but my biases have to be checked. I remember being incensed over the Jena Six incident and the Duke Rape hoax too. We need more information. We do know the following:

    1) Zimmerman’s record was expunged of an resisting arrest/assault charge.

    2) Zimmerman wanted to be a cop.

    3) Zimmerman got out of the car and followed Trayvon when advised not to by the dispatcher and did not follow the guidelines of Neighborhood Watch.

    This is what we know. It is not that Zimmerman is being treated like a cop. In my opinion, even cops shouldn’t get to be treated as cops, that is as if they are above the law because they supposedly enforce it. Citizens regardless of vocation should be treated the same under the law. We are a nation of laws, supposedly. That is why Zimmerman deserves the benefit of the doubt.

  14. Mark Robinson

    RR, If we accept your assertion that Zimmerman deserves the benefit of the doubt — and I’m okay with that, despite the fact that this benefit was never extended to Trayvon — it is still clear that Zimmerman should be in police custody.

    Based on the facts not in dispute, as you have articulated them, there is ample probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. (And one of the facts that is not in dispute is that a young, unarmed man died at the hand of Mr. Zimmerman.) Isn’t that where he should be while the investigation plays out? Shouldn’t the proof of his guilt or innocence be presented in open court where there is at least an effort at transparency in the system? Police do not share evidence in an “open investigation” so the only way the public (and Trayvon’s parents) can know that the investigation is fair, dilligent and impartial is to bring the case to court.

    It’s hard to see how justice is served by Zimmerman continiung to sit on his own couch watching the basketball game. Or worse yet, allowing him to continue to “watch” the neighborhood.

  15. Carolyn

    Thank you, Mark. I logged in to make this same point, but you’ve already done it. Let’s not confuse the standard required to convict Zimmerman with the standard required to arrest him. The facts may yet prove that Zimmerman is not guilty of murder, manslaughter, or any other crime with which he might be charged. Yet it is still an outrage that he is not in custody.

  16. RR

    Mark, Carolyn,

    If George Zimmerman had shot Trayon Martin under the same circumstances in the state I in which I currently reside, there would be no dispute. Zimmerman would be arrested and prosecuted. Florida is quite different. The “Stand Your Ground” law passed in 2005 has clouded the issue. It is now up to a state grand jury to decide whether there are grounds for arresting Zimmerman. At this point, enough information has been uncovered to move forward with an arrest, IMO. If Zimmerman is not arrested, the constitutionality of the “Stand Your Ground” law will come into question.

    And let us not ignore the immigration aspect of this incident. Zimmerman is Hispanic, probably Cuban, who probably has an ax to grind against blacks. This is another reason for blacks to support a complete immigration moratorium.

    This incident also brings up a host of 2nd Amendment issues, which is rather depressing for 2nd Amendment advocates such as myself.

  17. RR

    If this witness account turns out to be credible, then it would seem that the police acted in accordance with the law. George Zimmerman will either not be arrested or if arrested, will be aquitted.

    http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/dpp/news/state/witness-martin-attacked-zimmerman-03232012

    If Trayvon Martin was beating Zimmerman while he was on the ground, the “Stand Your Ground” law doesn’t apply. If Trayvon was the aggressor, Zimmerman walks.

  18. Carolyn

    Even if this witness account holds up, in my opinion, that only bolsters my argument that Trayvon was the one standing his ground. The law still applies to this version of the facts, and still doesn’t give Zimmerman the right to provoke a conflict, then shoot the person who was defending himself against harm.

  19. Mark Robinson

    I reiterate my initial position that Zimmerman’s (self-appointed) role as Neighborhood Watch is a prima facie disqualification for any “Stand Your Ground” defense. Zimmerman’s very presence in that context is an affirmative, proactive and aggressive stance. The very definition of Neighborhood Watch is to “go looking for trouble.”

    The greater legal, moral and existential question for “Stand Your Ground” laws is: What if both Zimmerman and Trayvon had equally legitimate claims to a “Stand Your Ground” defense? What does that say about our society? Do we all have an equal right simply to use deadly force against each other because we feel the need to? Do we live in some 1950′s Hollywood western, with a sidearm on every hip and an opportunity to use it in every awkward social encounter?

  20. Carolyn

    Mark, again, I agree. These Stand Your Ground laws are dangerous for the reasons you just stated.

  21. RR

    Mark,

    Its been reported that Zimmerman was elected as Neighborhood Watch Captain by other group members. George Zimmerman’s presence as Neighborhood Watch Captain was not, in itself, aggressive or provocative. It is not against the law in Florida to ask a person a question. It is also not against the law to refuse to answer a question posed by another citizen (or law enforcement officer for that matter). At the moment, it seems that Mr. Zimmerman’s action were within the boundaries of Florida law. We can question the effectiveness and constitutionality of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, but our questioning would have no bearing on the incident under analysis. Zimmerman claims to have been returning (retreating) to his truck when he alleged Trayvon Martin attacked him. If Zimmerman was in fact retreating, i.e. not standing his ground, the applicability of the law itself would be moot.

    The implementation of the law is troubling on a number of levels, although the intent is not. The law was meant to give immunity from prosecution (and civil lawsuit) those individuals who defended themselves during the course of life-threatening situations. It may be as you and Carolyn assert, that Trayvon was actually standing his ground and that the law was on his side. Unfortunately, Trayvon is dead and we will never hear his side of the story.

  22. RR

    Carolyn,

    We don’t know whether Zimmerman provoked Martin. We do know that he asked Martin a question, which isn’t against Florida law. Zimmerman’s questioning may have caused Martin to become aggressive. If this is the case, the law is on Zimmerman’s side.

  23. Mark Robinson

    RR,
    “We do know that he asked Martin a question” We do? How do we know that? Through Mr. Zimmerman’s account of the incident? Unless there is forensic evidence, we don’t know anything of the sort. Even giving him a massive benefit of the doubt, Mr. Zimmerman’s account cannot be described as anything more than a self-serving narrative provided by an individual who drew a weapon prior to any evident deadly force being directed toward him, and who fired that weapon – with mortal consequences – on an unarmed individual. I think that the only presumption that can reasonably be made about this narrative is that it was most likely coached by the responding police officers on the scene.

    You say “It’s been reported that Zimmerman was elected as Neighborhood Watch Captain by other group members.” Yes. It has also been reported that the Neighborhood Watch group created itself (not the community) and that the group appointed him Captain.

    Why don’t we allow a proper, thorough, impartial investigation determine what is fact and what is assertion?

  24. RR

    Mark,

    We really don’t have anything to go on beside Zimmerman’s assertions because he is the only living witness to the shooting. And we only know that Zimmerman shot Martin because that was part of Zimmerman’s accounting. I’m not saying he is telling the truth.

    As far as the accounts of other witness accounts, you shouldn’t presume anything. Again, we are both engaging in conjecture here.

    I agree with you that we should allow the investigation to proceed, but you and Carolyn want Zimmerman arrested before the investigation is completed.

  25. Mark Robinson

    Absolutely positively I want Zimmerman arrested before the investigation is completed. You say that as though that was not standard police procedure and practice — which it is. There is an abundance of probable cause to make an arrest. And in the case of a fatal shooting any responsible, impartial law enforcement officer would do so until the details have been sorted out.

    You admonish me not to presume anything, and yet your comments are rife with presumptions. I don’t wish to presume anything. I want trained investigators to pursue their craft with the zeal appropriate to the loss of life of a teenage boy.

  26. RR

    Mark,

    You wrote:

    There is an abundance of probable cause to make an arrest.

    According to whom? You? Obviously, the police in Sanford would disagree with you, but who are they to disagree with you? After all, I’m sure you are much more familiar with Florida law than they are and you no doubt have much more advanced training in police procedures than those hick cops in Sanford. Maybe you could go down there and show them how it’s done you city-slicker you.

    There have been other more egregious “Stand Your Ground” cases than this incident where the “defender” was not arrested. Again, we can quarrel with the law itself, but the actions of the Sanford police were in accordance with Florida law and with procedures in other Florida jurisdictions.

    I want trained investigators to pursue their craft with the zeal appropriate to the loss of life of a teenage boy.

    What you want is for George Zimmerman to be convicted. Before that can happen, the evidence has to be produced to support any proposed charge. What would Zimmerman be charged with? Murder? Manslaughter? Jay-walking? What? Or would you be satisfied with some made up charge to pacify the howling masses as was done in the Dharun Ravi case. Of course, Ravi was actually arrested after an investigation (even though there was no evidence that a bias crime had been committed). You may not wish to presume anything, but you nonetheless are. We both are making presumptions here, which is understandable being that neither of us really knows what the cops know and even the cops don’t know whether Zimmerman is lying or not.

    The incident is now being investigated at the state and federal level. Let’s see what, if anything, they turn up.

  27. Carolyn

    There’s no basis in anything Mark has said to indicate he wants George Zimmerman to be convicted. It would be just as easy, and equally fallacious, for me to assume you want Zimmerman to be exonerated. I think we’ve reached the point in this conversation where further debate is pointless. Let’s see what happens over the next several days, or weeks.

  28. Steve

    A few more questions. The trial of Zimmerman seems to be going on in public forums all over. Debates as to what evidence exists, Zimmerman’s supposed intentions, Trayvon’s supposed actions, etc. etc. etc. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon, there was some sort of confrontation, no witnesses other than Zimmerman’s radio conversation with the dispatcher, Zimmerman shoots Trayvon, and the police arrive. In a shooting incident where the shooter is known and the victim is dead, under what circumstances is it appropriate for the police to determine that the shooter acted within his rights and not be taken in to custody? Under what circumstances should the shooter’s guilt or innocence not need to be investigated (the apparent initial intent of the police, I understand). When is a trial not warranted? It is said that the police determined there was not suffricient probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. Was this based on the Stand Your Ground Law itself? That is, would it have been appropriate to arrest Zimmerman under the same circumstances if he claimed self defense and there were no SYGL? And the ultimate question here is, does the SYGL supersede trial by jury? A person suspected of a crime is afforded due process by the United States Constitution. Does the Constitution turn that around and imply that a person suspected of a crime MUST be afforded due process, trial by jury?

  29. Mark Robinson

    Interesting questions. Does the government have an OBLIGATION to due process even if a citizen does not assert their RIGHT to it? That may seem like an odd question, but what if you ask it during the Civil Rights era?

    If the government has reasonable cause to believe that a crime MAY have been committed, does it have an obligation to investigate?

    If it can be argued that a Stand Your Ground Law preempts the government’s exercise of due process, does that make the law unconstitutional?

  30. Carolyn

    Mark, you’re truly brilliant. I’ve been asking myself the same questions since I saw the gentleman’s comment. Very interesting.

  31. Carolyn

    These are great questions. I need to do some further research. Possibly the subject of a future post. Thank you.

  32. Noreen Wynne

    Carolyn,
    I have never been on this site,but I like it. When this tragedy happened I was sickened. Since when is it a crime to walk anywhere in the US to buy candy? I tell u, I am the polar opposite of Trayvon age and race wise, however,even at my age I have felt what I think is some underlying intimidation by these so called “watch” groups. We have owned our home for 22 yrs I have been here for 50. No criminal record. I had problems on a public job at which I worked for 30 yrs. It became very strange and scary in my neighborhood,and not by criminals. I believe these groups think they are the police and put their hands in everything. I knew who they were, and for that reason I believe Trayvons death is not in vain,though horrible,I believe he brought this system out of the shadows. I thank him fir that.


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